Have you ever felt out of your depth or that can’t do the job you’ve been hired to do? Do you worry you will be discovered at any point as a ‘fraud’? You may be suffering from impostor syndrome: a phenomenon where an individual doubts their skills, talents, abilities, and accomplishments in the face of obvious success.

The experience can leave the individual feeling as though they will be ‘exposed’ of their fraudulence. Impostor syndrome comes from the term impostor phenomenon, which was introduced in 1978 in the article “The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention” by Dr. Pauline R. Clance and Dr. Suzanne A. Imes. When the term was first introduced, it was thought to apply mostly to accomplished women, however, since then, it has been studied and recognised to be more broadly experienced and is considered a potential threat to diversity in the workplace.

Studies have suggested that 70% of people experience the syndrome at some point in their career. In March, we conducted our ‘Female Leaders: Inspiring Together’ series in which we interviewed a multitude of female leaders across the life science, pharma and medical device industries and 80% of those interviewed said they had experienced some form of self-doubt or impostor syndrome during their career. We also conducted a LinkedIn survey that highlighted 87% of our network had suffered from it at some point in their career. If you are unsure of whether this is something you have experienced or are currently experiencing, you can take a quick test here.

Who is most likely to suffer?

Access Commercial Finance surveyed over 3,000 adults in the UK and found that impostor syndrome affects 62% of people at work. 66% of women and 56% of men said they had experienced it in the last 12 months. This raises the question, are women more likely to experience these feelings of inadequacy in the workplace? Generally, impostor syndrome can affect anyone of any age, gender or race. However, due to the gender gap in leadership positions, and recognised issues with bias in the workplace, it has been found to disproportionally affect women, with women from black and ethnic minority backgrounds even more likely to experience impostor syndrome in comparison to white male employees. A white male can more easily find a relatable role model in the workplace than a woman from an ethnic minority background can and this is said to be part of the reason.

This stems from deeper-rooted issues around diversity in leadership. Lean In, a community dedicated to helping women achieve their ambitions, suggested in their 2019 report that women are less likely than men to be hired and promoted to manager. Men hold 62% of manager-level positions, whilst women hold just 38%. Similarly, Catalyst, a global non-profit organisation that works to promote women into leadership positions, reported in 2019 that women within the US held only 26.1% of directorships, women in France held 44.3%, and the UK only 31.7%. Catalyst also suggested that less than 5% of US corporate board seats are held by women from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, despite making up 18% of the US population. Without relatability to gender or race within senior levels, many are bound to feel there is a lack of advancement opportunity and perhaps feel they don’t belong at that level – as they have no one to look up to. Brian Daniel Norton, a psychotherapist and executive coach also suggested that “Women, women of colour, especially black women, as well as the LGBTQ community are most at risk, when you experience systemic oppression or are directly or indirectly told your whole life that you are less-than or undeserving of success and you begin to achieve things in a way that goes against a long-standing narrative in the mind, impostor syndrome will occur.”

How do you manage impostor syndrome, and how do you stop it from affecting your career?

1. Acknowledge this is something a lot of people experience

A huge 80% of people in our survey admitted impostor syndrome was something that they had experienced. In our interview with Rachel McNeill, Founder & CEO of PharmaPhix, she said with regards to the self-doubt she experiences, “I think the way I overcome this is to realise everybody has self-doubt, both males and females.” Recognising you experience something 4 out of 5 people do, will hopefully help you to rationalise those feelings.

2. Recognise that the lack of role models doesn’t mean you can’t be one yourself

To ensure that we are empowering women, and especially women from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, to progress to these higher positions, we must educate ourselves and work together to abolish any systematic bias within the workplace so we can start to see more role models for younger generations. However, just because there aren’t as many role models, doesn’t mean you can’t be one of the first in your business. For many, dealing with impostor syndrome comes down to believing in yourself and deciding you are experienced and talented enough to do your role. During our Female Leaders series, we interviewed Berit Lindholm, CEO of Bluefish Pharmaceuticals who said “I had to decide that I’m good enough and have that confidence. Of course, I’m going to learn and develop, but I’m good enough as I am.”

3. Challenge your emotions and feelings

As part of our LinkedIn survey, one of our followers suggested that “Subconscious reprogramming can help you to deal with impostor syndrome for good. You can completely revaluate how you live.” This suggests that we can try to re-program our minds to think positively and affirm to ourselves that we are good enough, in order to stop comparing ourselves to our peers. Valeri Young – an author and impostor syndrome expert – suggests that “The goal is not to never feel like an impostor. The goal for me is to give [people] the tools and the insight and information to talk themselves down faster.” It may be that you need professional support to put the right tools in place to help you to do this. Christine Grogan, Former Vice President of Marketing Americas for KCI, told us during her interview, “I think most people have self-doubt. I don’t know that I have mastered reining it in. I think a lot of us talk among each other and we all think we’re not good enough…As women, sometimes we doubt ourselves too much. We have got to get that little voice out of our heads and know we’re good enough.”

4. Share your thoughts and feelings with colleagues and friends

For individuals who feel as though impostor syndrome may be affecting their day-to-day lives, acknowledge these feelings and share them with colleagues and friends to put them into perspective. Those with different experiences may be able to relate and have words of wisdom to help you to challenge your ‘fraudulent’ feelings.

5. Accept that there are areas you need help with and that doesn’t make you bad at your job

You can’t be good at everything and it helps to accept that there are things you don’t know and to seek help with those areas. During our Female Leaders interview with Lusi Chien, former Global Commercial Leader at Subtle Medical, she said “For me, it’s really about connecting with peers, with other professionals, and getting help with areas I don’t know and just even trading notes. I schedule in regular times with peers, I have several different networks I’m a part of.” Emmanuelle Lepine, General Manager at mAbxience told us during her interview, “When I was younger, I always had that feeling and thought somebody will discover me at one point. But with age, you realise that everybody is somehow ‘false’. Everybody has limits to their knowledge, and nobody knows at all.”

6. Try a balance of working from home if your role allows

An article we read recently suggested that working from home can seem to relieve the burden of impostor syndrome. Dr. Terri Simpkin, Associate Professor at The University of Nottingham, said: “Impostor Phenomenon is related to context and so if the context changes so can experience of Impostorism. It’s socially constructed so change the social circumstances and the experience may change too.” Taking yourself out of the workplace every now and again could help with those feelings.